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Weissman writes: "Once upon a time, Vladimir Putin started the new Cold War. He set out to take over Ukraine economically."

Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin. (photo: Alexei Nikolsky/AP)
Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin. (photo: Alexei Nikolsky/AP)

Exposing the Cold War Roots of America's Coup in Kiev

By Steve Weissman, Reader Supported News

18 April 14


nce upon a time, Vladimir Putin started the new Cold War. He set out to take over Ukraine economically. But the freedom-loving Ukrainians took to the barricades and drove out his henchman, President Viktor Yanukovych. So Putin seized Crimea and put his troops on the Ukrainian border, eager to seize more land to remake the evil empire.

This is the fairy tale that Western leaders and their favorite story-tellers want us to believe. They might even believe it themselves. But the truth is far more instructive, and could help both Russia and the West get out of a rivalry that could by accident or misjudgment lead to nuclear annihilation.

Less a new Cold War than the resurrection of the undead, the reborn rivalry has already encouraged what sociologist C. Wright Mills called "crackpot realism," most dramatically in the plea from Leslie Gelb, president emeritus of the prestigious Council on Foreign Relations. Dr. Gelb wants Obama "to dispatch 50 or 60 of the incredibly potent F-22s to Poland plus Patriot batteries and appropriate ground support and protection. Russian generals and even Putin surely know that the F-22s could smash the far inferior Russian air force and then punish Russian armies invading eastern Ukraine or elsewhere in the region."

A former New York Times journalist and high-ranking official at State and Defense under Democratic presidents, Gelb also wants Washington to help prepare Ukrainians for guerrilla war against an invading Russian force.

"Support for what might be the Ukrainian Resistance, combined with an F-22 deployment to Poland 'to protect U.S./NATO security interests in the region,' should give Putin pause," writes Gelb. "And this approach would make the dictators in Pyongyang, Damascus, and Beijing think twice now as well."

With "moderates" like Gelb, who needs Dr. Strangelove?

This is the most likely face of our future. Likely, but not inevitable. Not if we dig into the past to expose the Cold War roots of America's Coup in Kiev (Part I and Part II).

A Very Mixed Blessing

Flash back to the presidencies of Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter and their well-publicized campaigns to promote human rights behind the Iron Curtain. Whatever their intentions, their efforts led to greater freedom, democracy, and national independence in Eastern Europe – and to expanding a nuclear-armed NATO eastward toward Russia's borders. Nowhere was the mix more lethal to the Soviets than in Poland, "a country vital to their strategic position in Europe," as CIA Director William Casey described it to President Ronald Reagan on April 9, 1981.

"Although there had been some modest activities in support of Solidarity outside of Poland by the Carter administration," explains Robert Gates, "CIA's efforts did not really get rolling until the latter part of 1982." At the time the CIA's national intelligence officer for the USSR and Eastern Europe, Gates describes using intermediaries and third parties in Western Europe to provide Lech Walesa's supporters with "printing materials, communications equipment, and other supplies for waging underground political warfare."

Other covert aid came from or through the AFL-CIO, led by president Lane Kirkland and his international chief Irving Brown, both of whom met frequently with Reagan's top national security team. As I wrote with CIA whistle-blower Philip Agee back in 1977, Brown had worked with the agency from the earliest days of the Cold War to channel covert funding and mobilize anti-Communists in the European labor movement.

The covert operations also included using Washington's Radio Free Europe and Voice of America to spread information and disinformation to the Polish army and security services and to other countries in the Warsaw Pact. Much of the material, including leaflets, came from psychological warfare specialists at the CIA and the Pentagon.

Finally, Reagan, his special envoy Gen. Vernon Walters, Bill Casey, and National Security Adviser William Clark all coordinated closely with Pope John Paul II, other top Vatican officials, and American Catholic leaders, as Carl Bernstein and Marco Politi brilliantly describe in "His Holiness."

For good or for bad – and it was both – these were the opening shots of the current crisis, encouraged by Moscow's increasing inability to counter them. By the time Mikhail Gorbachev took office in 1985, his options, as Stanford historian James Sheehan explains, "were fatally compromised, first by his own decision not to use force to preserve the Soviet imperium, and second, by the manifest failure of his economic policies." But make no mistake. He knew what Washington was trying to do.

"I have information that your policy is driven by trying to disassociate Eastern Europe from the Soviet Union," he told US secretary of state James Baker in Moscow in mid-May 1990. "You know my attitude – if these countries seek to disassociate themselves, if that's what they want, let them do so. But not if they're being pushed in this regard."

Gorbachev saw Washington's covert pushing as part of a continuing effort to encircle the Soviet Union. On their introductory meeting in Malta in early December 1989, he gave President George H.W. Bush an intelligence map showing this strategic containment. Bush joked about it, but the issue came up again when the two men met in Washington at the end of May 2000.

"You gave me that map at Malta with the blue flags," said Bush. "I asked the CIA to see how accurate your intelligence was. They give you high marks." Bush and his national security adviser Brent Scowcroft turned out to be better salesmen than anyone had any right to expect.

"I told Brent that we have to convince you that these flags don't mean we are trying to surround you, to encircle the Soviet Union," Bush said. "Some of it we can do by words; some must be by actions."

In some of his actions, Bush was brilliant, refusing to gloat publicly over his victories or to dance on the toppled Berlin Wall. But he was disastrously short-sighted and underhanded with his words. As early as November 1989, just after the wall came down, he wrote to assure Gorbachev, "We have no intention of seeking unilateral advantage from the current process of change in the GDR [German Democratic Republic] and in other Warsaw Pact countries."

Not One Inch to the East

Much of the "assurance" was to win Gorbachev's consent for the unification of the GDR with West Germany. He still had some 380,000 troops in the GDR and legal rights going back to the allied victory in World War II. The historical record of the multi-sided negotiations is remarkably clear, with archives now open in all the major countries and far too many self-serving memoirs and lengthy interviews from participants on all sides.

On January 31, 1990, West German foreign minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher spoke at the Tutzing Protestant Academy in Bavaria, where he proposed unification of the two Germanys. A unified Germany would remain a member of NATO, he declared. But NATO's jurisdiction would not extend to the territory of what was still the German Democratic Republic (GDR).

Secretary of State James Baker said much the same to Soviet foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze in Moscow on February 7 and 8 and to Gorbachev on February 9. "There would be no extension of NATO's forces one inch to the East," he promised. Genscher went even further the next day. "NATO will not expand to the east," he told Shevardnadze, and "this applies in general," by which he included all of Eastern Europe. German chancellor Helmut Kohl gave Gorbachev a similar, though less inclusive, assurance the following day. "Naturally," said the chancellor, NATO must not extend its sphere to the territory of today's GDR."

"Indeed," writes the award-winning historian Mary Elise Sarotte, "such statements helped to inspire Gorbachev to agree, on February 10, to internal German unification, in the form of economic and monetary union." But even as these specific assurances were softening Gorbachev's resolve, Washington rejected them out of hand. For Bush, a united Germany had to remain a full partner of NATO, fully protected by NATO's nuclear guarantee and firmly held in check by America's leading role in Europe.

Bush sent Kohl a letter suggesting different language that dropped any talk of NATO's "jurisdiction." He then hammered his message home in a face-to-face meeting at Camp David on February 24. "The Soviets are not in a position to dictate Germany's relationship with NATO," he declared with a victor's certainty. "What worries me is talk that Germany must not stay in NATO. To hell with that! We prevailed, they didn't. We can't let the Soviets clutch victory from the jaws of defeat."

Under increasing pressure at home, Gorbachev continued to push for German neutrality until he met with Kohl in Russia in mid-July. That was when he conceded that the unified Germany could become a full member of NATO, for which Moscow received billions in German credits, loans, and outright payments. Eastern Germany would retain a "special military status" with certain limits on foreign troops. This led to a Final Settlement in September, in which Moscow agreed to remove its forces from East Germany.

If the historians have it right, as most analysts think they do, Washington and its European allies never gave Gorbachev any written assurance or signed agreement that NATO would forgo expanding to the east. Nor did he ask for any. As historian Sheehan put it, his "desperate need for hard currency ultimately forced Gorbachev to swallow the bitter pill of a unified Germany integrated with the west, a pill washed down with large quantities of Deutschmark."

In all this, Bush had no fixed plan for how to integrate the former Warsaw Pact nations into NATO. It was still too soon for that and events were moving much too fast. But, contrary to the earlier thinking of many historians, Mary Sarotte has documented that the Bush administration was already thinking about how NATO might expand into Eastern Europe.

As early as February 20, 1990, the Hungarian politician Gyula Horn speculated publicly that in the future Hungary might join NATO. In response, the State Department assigned Harvey Sicherman to write a report covering Eastern Europe as well as the two Germanys, and he discovered that the Poles as well as Hungarians were looking toward future cooperation with NATO. Two top State Department officials – Dennis Ross and Robert Zoellick – began speculating about a potential role for NATO in Eastern Europe, on which Zoellick and Baker briefed Bush in July.

Speaking with François Mitterrand in April, Bush himself argued that only NATO could accomplish two major tasks: Keep America in Europe. And provide a collective security arrangement that could include Eastern Europe, and perhaps even the Soviet Union. So, even as he was assuring Gorbachev that the West was not trying to encircle the Soviet Union, Bush and his advisors were considering how they might move the old Iron Curtain ever closer to Russia's borders.

Little came of this as Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in August 1990, absorbing Washington's attention. But as soon as Moscow removed its troops from Eastern Germany, NATO began preparing to expand to the East, deciding in 1997 to give membership to Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia. Under US presidents Clinton and George W. Bush and their European allies, NATO and the European Union continued to move ever closer to Russia's borders. Today only one major pressure point remains. That prize is Ukraine.

Ending the Cold War

In Geneva on Thursday, envoys from the United States, the European Union, the Russian Federation, and the new Western-backed government in Kiev agreed to de-escalate tensions in Eastern Ukraine. No one knows whether the agreement will hold, or even if Putin can control the pro-Russian nationalists he helped stir up in what he is now calling "New Russia." He has admitted using his special forces in Crimea, and has apparently deployed them into Eastern Ukraine as well, though he says not. But the onion farmers and other locals who have surrounded Ukrainian army units in the East won't necessarily follow Moscow's lead, and a historically divided Ukraine could well break apart whatever outsiders choose to do.

That said, no peace can hold for long until the outsiders – Putin, Washington, and Brussels – finally resolve the unfinished Cold War issues that continue to divide them. NATO has to guarantee that Ukraine will never become a member, and that the alliance will let strategic containment die, as it should have under George H. W. Bush. The EU has to find trading arrangements that include the Russians rather than exclude them. And Putin has to put his energy into building a modern Russian economy rather than being consumed by the humiliation – and, yes, betrayal – that Gorbachev and his generation suffered at the hands of the West.

The current crisis offers an opportunity to move in these directions, though self-destructive economic sanctions, F-22s, and a guerrilla war seem far more likely.

A veteran of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement and the New Left monthly Ramparts, Steve Weissman lived for many years in London, working as a magazine writer and television producer. He now lives and works in France, where he is researching a new book, "Big Money and the Corporate State: How Global Banks, Corporations, and Speculators Rule and How to Nonviolently Break Their Hold."

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